Ozymandias, King of Kings

Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley has always been one of my favorite poems.* There’s so much to love about it—the explosive word “shattered”; the juxtaposition of “survive” and “lifeless”; the alliteration of “boundless and bare” and “lone and level” and “sands stretch”; most of all, the crescendo of “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” followed by the sobering subito piano of the desolate “Nothing beside remains.” I always imagine the sound of an unquiet, whirling wind when I picture the scene; the sky is cloudless, the sun scorching, the sand burning, the landscape utterly barren.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

What brings this to mind today is a story from the Guardian about last week’s discovery of a 3,000-year-old and 26-foot-tall statue, believed to be of Ramses II, in Cairo. I visited Cairo, the Pyramids, and Alexandria in 2011 and loved it (except for the part where I was ridiculously naïve and got groped by a creepy older guy). I wonder what Heliopolis looked like at the height of Ramses’s power?


* Here I’ll admit that I’m not particularly well-versed in poetry; for someone who has a degree in English literature, I find myself shamefully unfamiliar with any but the most well-known of poets, and I have no idea how to analyze a poem. I always found poetry too intimidating to take an actual class in it.

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